REVIEW: Virunga

17 01 2015


Fortunately for the filmmakers of “Virunga,” but rather unfortunately for the sake of humanity, the titular Congolese park is a hotbed for a whole host of ills and tragedies.  At the start of the film, director Orlando von Einsiedel introduces a set of park rangers who literally put their lives at risk to protect a population of endangered mountain gorillas from poachers.  One ranger, rather touchingly, describes his relationship to them in these terms: “I am not a father. I am a mother [to these gorillas].”

As if that were not enough to keep them occupied, the multinational oil corporation Soco announces their intent to drill for oil within Virunga.  Oil exploitation conflicts directly with conservation, naturally, so their proposed operation is technically illegal.  But not to worry – Soco bribed the local officials to make it possible!  (In a statement shown before the final credits, the company vehemently denies any wrongdoing or unethical interference.)  The Congo, still sorting out its own internal sparring, never stood a chance to unite and block the destruction of their land.

When it comes to exploring the dirty dealings of Soco, “Virunga” relies heavily on the investigative journalism of French reporter Melanie Gouby and her hidden camera recordings.  Her presence, informative though it may be, does slightly throw off the equilibrium of the documentary.  von Einsiedel tackles so much, and at times, discerning the true center of gravity is tough.  Who is the subject – Gouby or the nature conservationists? What is the central concern – the business, the oil, the land, the animals, or the general status of Africa?

“Virunga” manages collapse all its issues and questions into one mostly convincing narrative of capitalistic colonialism and civil conflict.  It provides a wide view of all the issues without giving any of them short shrift, not giving an overly broad or cursory treatment to any of its individual components.  Most importantly, the stakes are appropriately high.  von Einsiedel structures many parts of his film like a thriller, and it feels even scarier because these are real people and animals at risk.  If the world does not stand up and stop this injustice, an entire species could vanish from the face of the earth.  B / 2halfstars



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